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Seven principles about learning that every teacher should know

Prof. dr. Carl Hendrick
Prof. dr. Carl Hendrick
Laatst gewijzigd 12 February 2024
Leestijd 5 minuten
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In this blog, Professor Carl Hendrick discusses various principles related to learning. He emphasizes that learning experiences are often misleading and can lead to incorrect decisions in the future, pointing out that short-term success does not always equal long-term success. He underscores the importance of challenging learning, such as summarizing text, to truly promote understanding. Furthermore, he states that recognizing what students do not know, including misconceptions, is just as important as knowing what they do know. Hendrick advocates for the application of scientific insights on learning in the classroom, with an emphasis on ecologically valid conditions. He also stresses that 'fun' lessons do not necessarily result in good behavior and advocates for developing talent in all students, not just discovering it.



1. Learning often feels like you’re not learning anything at all (and vice versa)


One of the really unfortunate things about learning is that many of the experiences we have during the actual process of learning are highly misleading and lead to us making bad decisions in the future. For example, an ineffective way of studying is to re-read and highlight material primarily because this material is usually quickly forgotten. In other words, success in the short term doesn’t always mean success in the long term.


However, when we do this, it feels as if we are really understanding and mastering the content and we confidently move on with the illusion that we know it when often we have merely just encountered it. In contrast, effortful learning like summarizing a paragraph, making a list of key terms and self-testing or explaining a tricky concept to a partner can feel uncomfortable or even confusing but paradoxically it’s often during those activities that learning actually occurs.


2. Knowing what they don’t know is sometimes more important than what they do know

When students do an assessment, it’s usually to find out what they know. This gets recorded and data gets added centrally to ‘track progress’ and teachers spend a lot of time doing this, arguably too much time. Identifying what students know is clearly important, indeed as David Ausubel reminds us, "the most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach him accordingly". However often we don’t pay enough attention to what students don’t know and more importantly their misconceptions, misunderstandings and gaps in knowledge. This data is often more useful to the teacher than the student for the main reason that they now know exactly how to help their students and what to plan for their next lesson as opposed to knowing that ‘Joe is working at a level 5.’


3. We understand new stuff based on old stuff

There is a broad consensus in cognitive psychology that we do not just passively record new information but rather we apprehend and attenuate it based on what we already know. For example, anyone who’s read King Lear will watch Brian Cox’s brilliantly rendered characterization of Logan Roy in Succession and instantly recognize that as volatile as he is, the real chaos occurs not when in his presence but rather in his absence as nascent power and raw ambition floods into the vacuum he leaves behind. More simply, for students learning to read, the richer and more developed their vocabulary and conceptual understanding, the richer and more developed their understanding of any given text will be so design instruction with that in mind. There are a minority of student who might discover this for themselves but the majority won’t.



4. Teaching expertise is found in the classroom not the laboratory

The science of learning (a movement largely based on cognitive psychology) has given us hugely valuable insights into how learning happens and I believe teachers should base lesson planning on those principles but a lot of the findings are from inauthentic settings such as graduate students in university labs. The challenge now for teachers is to apply that knowledge under ‘ecologically valid’ conditions, in other words, classrooms.


For example, we know that retrieval practice is a powerful way of engendering long term learning and there are a lot of examples of good practice such as quizzing at the start of lessons but there is a real danger of ‘lethal mutations’ where it’s used in a way that does not lead to long-term learning. Teachers should be trained in the principles of cognitive architecture and then apply those principles in a systematic way with consistent feedback, reflection and evaluation.


5. Independent learning is not a good way to create independent learners

Another counterintuitive thing about learning is that often the steps needed to get to a final outcome look very different to the final outcome itself. For example in sport, to become an elite level footballer, it’s necessary to work on a range of things in the early stages such as touch, positioning, controlling the ball, an understanding of space and of course fitness. These things often look very different than all these components joined up in an actual match but the constituent parts should be mastered in order for the player to be able to use them without thinking. Similarly, in order for a student to become a fluent reader or become proficient at Maths, it’s necessary to master letter/sound correspondences or multiplication times tables which again, look very different than the desired outcome but are necessary to achieve that outcome.


6. ‘Engaging’ lessons are not a pre-requisite for good behaviour

Of all the toxic ideas in education, possibly the most harmful (especially to beginning teachers) is the idea that if a student misbehaves in your class, it’s your fault as a teacher because you didn’t plan the lesson to be ‘engaging’ enough. Despite the fact that engagement doesn’t always mean learning, the message here is an extremely unhelpful one, namely that kids need to somehow be entertained into learning and that if something is boring then they don’t have to pay attention. A lot of things worth learning are boring in the initial stages and that’s the point. We should impress upon students the value of short-term struggle in order to achieve long-term gain, a pattern we see again and again in achievement in many different domains of expertise. Of course, struggling with something for an hour is not productive and likely to turn people off anything but students experiencing that cognitive pivot from ‘this is impossible’ to that feeling of ‘oh wait actually I can do this!’ is one of the most powerful levers we have for facilitating learning.


7. Focus on talent development not talent discovery

Even if a classroom is unproductive and unruly with a vague curriculum and poor instruction, about 20% of students will do well independently (Hollingsworth & Ybarra 2018). It’s their essays which are pinned to the wall, something the aforementioned authors refer to as ‘talent discovery’. But an effective teacher will focus on all students in a class and focus on the development of talent not the mere discovery of it. An effective way to do this is through high expectations, clear instruction, modelling, scaffolding, checking for understanding and ultimately setting the foundations for those underconfident students to be able to do the kind of independent work that the confident minority of students can do on their own.

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